The Toll of Terror
September 12, 2001
We write just one day after the terrible terrorist attack on New York City and the Pentagon. We are in shock, as is the rest of the nation. We grieve for the thousands who died, the thousands who are wounded, and their families.
But we resist the call to arms, and we are made sick by the blood lust in the media and among the populace.
The United States should protect itself and its citizens-no doubt. That is a constitutional requirement, and the obligation of all nation states. But to wage war may only seed the clouds for future acts of terror. And to act precipitously, as it seems Bush will do, all but guarantees that the United States will hit some wrong targets and inflict needless suffering on hundreds-maybe thousands-of innocent people.
Recall the Clinton bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum in 1998, which destroyed much of the medical supplies for that country.
Clinton said the plant was linked to nerve gas production, but never produced the evidence. Recall the missiles during that same bombing mission that strayed into Pakistan instead of hitting their targets in Afghanistan.
Are we going to see more of those?
Bush seems indifferent to the "collateral damage" that any large military action will cause. But what kind of morality is it for Bush to decry the killing of civilians and then go out and kill some civilians himself?
Commentators tell us that this is the second Pearl Harbor. On December 8, 1941, FDR got a declaration of war from Congress. No Congress has issued such a declaration since, though President after President has waged war. If Bush is to go to war, the least he could do is follow the requirements of Article 1, Section 8, of our Constitution. Otherwise, it will be another lawless act, and another diminution of our democracy.
The Pearl Harbor analogy has frightening connotations. Two months after Japan's surprise attack, the U.S. government rounded up Japanese Americans into internment camps. Now it seems highly improbable that Arab Americans or Muslim Americans will be rounded up, but what does seem quite possible is that the media's obsessive focus on a non-differentiated Islamic fundamentalism-mixed in with nativist sentiment that is always on the shelf-will create a cocktail of hate crimes.
"We should drop nuclear weapons on all of Islam," said one anonymous caller, who left a message with American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice in Santa Clara, California.
" Islamic Americans in many cities have already been grappling with an angry backlash," The Wall Street Journal reported on September 12. "Salam School, an Islamic elementary school in Milwaukee, evacuated its 372 students after receiving two threatening phone calls. Meanwhile, Islamic schools in Southern California were evacuated, [and] a Fort Worth, Texas, mosque received a bomb threat."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, D.C., recommended several security precautions be taken. "Those who wear Islamic attire should consider staying out of public areas for the immediate future," was one such precaution.
Meanwhile, the civil liberties of all Americans are under threat. ABC News conducted a poll on the evening of September 11 that showed 66 percent of Americans were in favor of curtailing civil liberties if it made them more secure. And officials were quick to go on the air with proposals that domestic surveillance be increased.
Civil liberties, like truth, are a casualty of war. It is not something we should roll over for.
In his primetime speech to the nation on September 11, President Bush said, "America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world."
Not knowing with any certainty who the attackers were, it's hard to speculate on their motives. But many groups in the Third World have grievances that are more specific than the ones Bush mentioned, such as U.S. support for the corrupt Saudi regime, or Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and its suppression of the intifada.
No grievance, however, justifies the killing of innocent people. No grievance can make the acts of September 11 anything less than the ghoulish, heartless attack that they were. Those behind the acts should be apprehended and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
But we do need to examine the roots of terrorism. And the United States has wittingly and unwittingly cultivated many of them.
In the case of Osama Bin Laden, Washington's chief suspect, it needs to be recalled that he was a creature of the CIA. In the 1980s, the United States put out an all-points-bulletin for Islamic fundamentalists to come to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. Bin Laden was among them. "He is said to have received considerable money during the ten-year Afghan battle from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency," the Associated Press reported on September 12.
(Ironically, many officials and former officials are saying the United States needs to loosen up the laws that restrict the CIA from recruiting people with unsavory human-rights records. These officials say we need to increase our "human assets," but what does that mean: We're going to put more Bin Ladens on the payroll?)
Ahmed Rashid's latest book, Taliban (Yale University Press, 2000), quotes Bin Laden as saying that American officers helped him set up his first camp in Afghanistan. "The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis," he says in the book.
Rashid gives the background: "Between 1982 and 1992, some 35,000 Muslim radicals from forty-three Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia, and the Far East would pass their baptism under fire with the Afghan Mujaheddin. Tens of thousands more foreign Muslim radicals came to study . . . along the Afghan border. Eventually, more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the jihad.
"In camps near Peshawar and in Afghanistan, these radicals met each other for the first time and studied, trained, and fought together. It was the first opportunity for most of them to learn about Islamic movements in other countries, and they forged tactical and ideological links that would serve them well in the future. The camps became virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism.
"None of the intelligence agencies involved wanted to consider the consequences of bringing together thousands of Islamic radicals from all over the world. 'What was more important in the worldview of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?' said Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. National Security Adviser."
This boomerang effect is what intelligence officers call "blowback." And what is blowing back is a virulent strain of religious fundamentalism, and a large cadre of Muslim fanatics trained in modern warfare.
Bin Laden became further radicalized during the Gulf War. He "openly accused Saudi Arabia's King Fahd of selling the holy sites of Islam to the United States," the A.P. noted.
With that, he was off and running, first to the Sudan, and then back to Afghanistan.
Other U.S. policies have also served, unwittingly, as recruiting calls for terrorists. The sanctions against Iraq (and the regular bombings that have occurred in the years since the Gulf War) have appalled much of the world.
And unconditional U.S. support for Israel, its chief ally in the Middle East, has enraged the Muslim world. Israel's thirty-four-year occupation of Palestinian land and its ongoing repression of Palestinians during the second intifada have raised tensions not only in the Middle East but throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
These may be some of the contributing factors behind the targeting of America. Others include: global poverty, bigotries of all stripes, nationalism, and a religious fanaticism that says any means-no matter how gruesome-are justified in the service of the cause.
To note these factors is not, by any means, to justify the actions of the terrorists. It is only to suggest that the United States should be careful not to pursue policies that are unjust or needlessly inflammatory. The United States will not be able to preempt the ravings of every madman, but it can see to it that it does not send thousands of people into the arms of such madmen.
The calls for retribution came swiftly, and from all quarters. One poll showed more than 90 percent of the American people in favor of military action. Another said two-thirds were in favor even if it meant that innocent lives would be lost.
But what will an attack achieve?
Bush appears to be planning a huge military action, perhaps including the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan. Other targets may be on the boards.
How many innocent people will die in this act of vengeance against the killing of innocent people?
And how many seeds of terror will the U.S. retaliation sow?
We should remember that when President Reagan sent jets to bomb Muammar Qaddafi's tent in April 1986, a raid that killed one of Qaddafi's kids, it spurred its own act of revenge. A Libyan agent was convicted of the 1988
downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Prosecutors said the agent was out to settle the score.
This cycle of violence must be broken. The time to break it is now.
One last point. George W. Bush said this is a conflict of "good versus evil." But the United States has a long way to go before it can put the halo of "good" over its head.
If the United States truly abhors the killing of innocent people, it must stop the killing of innocent people in Iraq with the weapon of economic sanctions.
If the United States truly abhors the killing of innocent people, it must throw its weight behind reaching a peace accord in Colombia rather than funding the military there, which is complicit in thousands of human rights abuses.
If the United States truly abhors the killing of innocent people, it must intercede with Israel and insist on the return of the Occupied Territories to the Palestinian Authority.
A little humble reckoning is in order, too. "The policies of militarism pursued by the United States have resulted in millions of deaths," the War Resisters League noted on September 11. And that is, indeed, the grisly record: three million in Indochina, one million in Indonesia and East Timor, tens of thousands in Latin America, thousands more in Africa and the Middle East.
"Let us seek an end of the militarism that has characterized this nation for decades," the staff and executive committee of the War Resisters League said on September 11. "Let us seek a world in which security is gained through disarmament, international cooperation, and social justice-not through escalation and retaliation."
Those are wise words, and we would do well to heed them in this time of terror.
The easy response is the military one. That's what the people clamor for. That's what the media clamor for. That's what U.S. precedent would require.
But it is not the moral or the sensible line of action.
To pile innocent body upon innocent body will do no one-and no nation-any good.